You’re in class, following along, taking notes, and then the teacher says something you don’t understand. All around you, your classmates are nodding their heads confidently. They all seem to be comprehending just fine.
What should you do?
First, know that if you’re confused, then there are at least 4 or 5 other kids who don’t get it either! They’re just probably all afraid to stop the teacher and “waste” everyone’s time or “look stupid.” For their sake, speak up. Be the person who says what’s on everyone’s mind.
Here are five different ways you can handle this situation that all make you look like a total pro. Next time you’re thinking, “I don’t get it!” these are five smoother things you could say instead...
1) “Can I see another quick example of that?”
First, try asking your teacher for an example. Even if the teacher already gave an example, ask for another one. Seeing a new example might be just what you need to understand the concept in a new way. If not, at least it gets you more information and buys you time to use the other four tactics on this list. You can also be more specific. For instance you could ask for an example in a specific notation or involving a certain process, topic, or historical era.
2) “How is this different from what we talked about yesterday?”
Another way to question your teacher like an expert is to compare the current lesson to a previous concept. Think of a similar problem you’ve done before and ask what the difference is. It’s easier to understand something new when you know how it’s different from and similar to something you already understand. Even more, your question will show the class (and your teacher) that you’re paying attention and have the old lessons down.
3) “I have a quick question.”
When you keep things short and sweet, your teacher will be more likely to respond right away and they will give you a more focused and specific answer. Try starting your question with “Who…,” What…,” “When…,” “Where…,” “Why…,” or “How…” to narrow in on a specific topic and show you’ve collected your thoughts. Try to phrase your question using as few words as possible.
4) “I understand steps 1 and 2, but I’m not clear on step 3.”
Try starting off with a quick recap of the things you do understand. This shows the class and the teacher that you were following everything until just a moment ago. Also, this allows the teacher to see exactly which part of the issue you aren’t understanding, so they can give you really quick and specific instruction. One final benefit of beginning with “here’s what I do understand” is that it’s positive, compared to “I don’t get it,” which is a negative way to start your question.
5) “How would the answer change if that was an 8 instead of a 4?”
Performing a thought experiment makes you look like a master of the subject. It’s a great way to say “I don’t get it” without actually saying those words. Simply propose a new example where you alter something slightly. Using this kind of hypothetical situation allows you to zero in on the exact aspect of the material you don’t understand. It also gives the teacher something concrete to grab onto when they respond to you.
Take Initiative with Confidence
When you take initiative and ask your question with confidence, your classmates will step aside and move out of your way. On the other hand, if you rush through your question in a meek voice, you won’t be taken as seriously. Do your best to speak in a loud, crisp voice so that everyone can hear your question. You’ll naturally talk quickly when you’re on the spot in front of the class, so make a point of speaking slowly and pausing completely before important words.
Good luck! You’ve got this.
Originally published: August 12, 2019
Author Bio: Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.